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Masks of the Venetian carnival acquire a haunting new significance in Teresa Oaxaca’s Best-in-Show

The Plague Mask, oil on canvas. 66x44"

By Haven Ashley

Inspired by the decadence and debauchery of the Venetian carnival, Plague Mask, by painter Teresa Oaxaca, is a ghoulish reckoning of science and vanity. The life-size portrait, rendered in tones of pewter and smoked amethyst, was painted after the artist visited Italy, several years before mask wearing became part of our everyday routine. Now, viewed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the significance of Oaxaca’s Best-in-Show is a macabre coincidence of circumstance and subject. A reminder that pride does not provide immunity to infection; an apple can be wormed at the core no matter how pink the skin.

The figure in Oaxaca’s painting wears the mask of the Medico Della Peste; the Plague Doctor. 17th century physician Charles de Lorme is credited with inventing the eerie, full body protective garment, easily recognized by its distinct, avian mask. Intended to shield the wearer from the bubonic plague, the mask’s beaked tip was often filled with flowers or fragrant herbs to temper any unwelcome odors of the sick. The dramatic curved mandible brings to mind another hooked, half-moon omen—the dreadful arc of the Grim’s scythe; Death’s shepherd’s crook. And indeed, the very sight of the plague doctor was soon feared as a harbinger of death to sufferers of a plague that claimed millions of victims.

Eventually, as the specter of its original context lost its malice, the plague doctor would become one of the most popular costumes at the Venetian carnival, influenced by both de Lorme’s hair-raising attire, and a character trope familiar to viewers of Commedia dell'arte, an early form of Italian theater.

Oaxaca’s plague doctor is, noticeably, lacking other necessary vestments: personal protective equipment in the form of a long leather coat, hood, hat, gloves, and cane. Perhaps the figure’s nudity is a reference to the racus delights of the carnival, those wanton, fleshy desires that must be kept bottled all Lenten season long.

The male figure in Plague Mask is solitary, not out among masked revelers enjoying the temptations provided by anonymity. Showered in flowers like an adored thespian, maybe this man is reflecting on his commedia dell'artecharacter. Fortunately for him, he was not cast as another familiar trope—the fool.

This piece is currently available. Contact for more details.

Quiet Days at the Torpedo Factory/Art League during the Coronavirus. Alexandria, VA. November 2020


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